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Friday, April 27, 2012

Both sides don't do it

by David Atkins

In yet another indicator that the tide is slowly turning against the "both sides do it" meme, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have a four-page opinion piece in the Washington Post today, deconstructing the "both sides do it" myth and laying the blame squarely where it belongs: on the insurgent extremist conservative movement in general, and Republicans in particular. A small taste:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach...

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.
There's still some BS in there about how Democrats have also gotten somewhat more partisan, but not nearly as much as the GOP (as if Democrats 30 years ago would have ever voted for tax cuts for the wealthy or bank deregulation?). But baby steps are better than no steps. Remember that Mann and Ornstein are employed by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. They're not exactly liberal activists.

what is a good government advocate to do in this environment? What is even a so-called "centrist" supposed to do? Insofar as the argument isn't driven purely by high-level donors and their interests, the argument on the left and center-left has been over whether to continue to be "reasonable", assuming that voters will realize just how extreme the Republicans have become, or whether to use the Republicans' own very successful tactics against them.

It would seem that the last three years should be all the political evidence one needs that the forbearance approach of the center-left doesn't work. Forget whether the policies are good or not for a moment: politically speaking, if forbearance and reasonableness were virtues in politics, President Obama would be a saint. He's bent farther over backwards to compromise with these people than Gumbi. The result was an even more extremist right wing, an historic devastation for his party in the 2010 midterms, an intransigentlly conservative Supreme Court, and an apoplectic 2012 campaign. Forbearance hasn't worked--and that's just the politics of it.

On the policy, the results are awful. It's not just that extreme conservative policy is bad. Centrist policy is bad, too. The authors speak fondly of the Democrats for compromising with George W. Bush to pass his tax cuts for the rich and No Child Left Behind. They also forget the bipartisan eagerness to invade Iraq. These were bad policies, policies that the American people would have been much better served by Democrats opposing en masse. Back in the Clinton years Democrats and Republicans joined forces to pass NAFTA, banking deregulation, and "end welfare as we know it." Those were also terrible, misguided policies.

If the politics of centrist forbearance from the left are bad, the policy is even worse. It's not just that the Republican Party has veered far right: the entire policy apparatus in America has done likewise. It needs a sharp, heavy tug to the left just to make it reasonable again.

Good government advocates should want a vibrant, raucous progressive movement in this country. There's nothing else that will change the current dynamic. It's not just that the country will be in bad shape, or that progressives will be disappointed. Without a strong left, not even the "centrists" will get what they want, either.